Op-ed: Next-Generation Networks Needed

The Knoxville News Sentinel published this op-ed about Tennessee's restrictive broadband law on January 9, 2016.

Christopher Mitchell: Next-Generation Networks Needed

Four words in Tennessee law are denying an important element of Tennessee's proud heritage and restricting choices for Internet access across the state.

When private firms would not electrify Tennessee, public power came to the rescue. In the same spirit, some local governments have built their own next-generation Internet access networks because companies like AT&T refused to invest in modern technology. These municipal networks have created competition, dramatic consumer savings and a better business climate in each of their communities.

The four words at issue prevent municipal electric utilities from expanding their successful fiber optic Internet networks to their neighbors, a rejection of the public investment that built the modern economy Tennessee relies upon.

Current law allows a municipal utility to offer telephone service anywhere in the state, but Internet access is available only "within its service area." This limit on local authority protects big firms like AT&T and Comcast from needed competition, and they have long lobbied to protect their de facto monopolies. To thrive, Tennessee should encourage both public and private investment in needed infrastructure.

These municipal systems have already shown they can bring the highest-quality Internet services to their communities. Chattanooga's utility agency, EPB, built one of the best Internet networks in the nation. Municipal fiber networks in Tullahoma, Morristown and more have delivered benefits far in excess of their costs while giving residents and local businesses a real choice in providers.

Many of these networks are willing to connect their neighbors — people and businesses living just outside the electric utility boundary. If Chattanooga wants to expand its incredible EPB Fiber into Bradley County with the consent of all parties, why should the state get in the way?

Consider that Tennessee metro areas almost always have at least one high-speed Internet option. Those with municipal networks have a real choice in providers. Nashville is slated for Google Fiber. But there is no such hope on the horizon in rural areas, despite the billions of dollars that have been spent on subsidies to providers like AT&T.

While AT&T's lobbyists scheme to prevent competition, the federal government subsidizes AT&T operations with more than $500,000 per month in Tennessee alone. So much for the "private" sector.

When it comes to municipal networks, taxpayer dollars are rarely used. Private investors often finance municipal networks by purchasing long-term bonds and are repaid by the revenues from the network. The Tennessee Valley Authority strictly oversees municipal utilities to ensure they are not cross-subsidizing telecom services with electrical ratepayer revenues.

To the extent municipal networks affect taxpayers, the taxpayers benefit. EPB just announced that in 2015 alone, its payments in lieu of taxes exceeded $19 million to the 17 jurisdictions in which it operates.

When local businesses connect to municipal fiber, more of their money stays in the community. Compare that to how much communities without a real choice send to AT&T and Comcast headquarters in distant states. And thanks to the competition, residents and businesses pay less. Morristown estimates a $3.4 million annual aggregate savings from lower bills.

The state should encourage communities to be more self-reliant and to build resilient regions rather than taking the side of distantly-owned monopolies. The state should be focused on how to encourage investment in next-generation Internet networks, not limit it.

 

Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is on Twitter: @CommunityNets.

John St. Julien, Lafayette Community Leader, Passes

We learned yesterday that John St. Julien, one of the leading voices behind the strong grassroots support of the LUS Fiber project, passed away on Sunday, January 10. His presence will be missed by us and by the many people he helped through his work to bring better Internet access to Lafayette, Louisiana.

John visited us for the Community Broadband Bits podcast for episodes #19 and #94 to share his advice and experience as a grassroots organizer. John developed the Lafayette Pro Fiber blog in the early days of the the LUS Fiber network fight. The blog helped spread the truth about the network and correct the lies spread by the incumbents. His ability to communicate with the people of Lafayette set the record straight so they could make informed decisions about a municipal fiber network.

When Chris wrote his report about Lafayette's municipal fiber network, he turned to John to learn about the community effort behind the project. Chris had this to say about John and his triumphs:

"I think I met John my second year working on community networks. I had spoken with him several times over the phone and had decided to do a case study of Lafayette. I drove to Lafayette from Dallas and spent an afternoon with him, learning about the struggle against Cox and BellSouth for local self-reliance. Visiting Lafayette while hearing John's stories helped immeasurably to build my passion for this work."

"John taught me many lessons about organizing and compassion over the years. I'm grateful for that wisdom and all the people he shared it with. We will miss him greatly but his work will live on in many others."

John was inspired by his work as an educator. He saw that the possibilities the fiber network offered students in Lafayette were boundless. His work on education and public interest issues did not stop with the LUS Fiber project. John also worked as a co-founder and board member of Power of Public Education Lafayette and he was active for the League of Women Voters. John had worked in education at Louisiana State University (LSU), the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Delaware.

Friends and acquaintances describe John as brilliant, thoughtful, and generous. A colleague from LSU described John: 

“He just had a way of bringing complex issues down to earth. He just had such a clear language about him...He was so gentle and had such a presence about him. The world was a better place with him in it. Lafayette is not going to be quite as rich without him. There’s going to be a major voice missing.”

But never forgotten. Thank you for all your work, passion, and determination, John. You have touched more lives than you could ever know.


Photo of John St. Julien courtesy of Scott Bradner.

"Fusion Splicing" to Light Up Village Network

Mahomet, Illinois, population 7,200, wanted to do something special to mark the official launch of its community fiber network. The network connects local public facilities as well as some area businesses. Instead of the old-fashioned ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Village held a very 21st century event in November to commemorate the occasion: a "fusion splicing" ceremony.

The local Mahomet Citizen described the proceedings:

With the press of a button, Acting Village President Sean Widener fused two strands of fiber about the width of a human hair. A computer screen showed the progress of the splice for the crowd, which included members of the Chamber of Commerce, elected officials and Mahomet-Seymour administrators.

It was an occasion that might otherwise call for a ribbon-cutting, “but in our industry, cutting is bad,” quipped Mark DeKeersgieter, executive director of the CIRBN.

A Collaborative Initiative

According to a press release, the network is a collaborative effort between the Village of Mahomet, the Mahomet-Seymour School District #3, and the Central Illinois Regional Network (CIRBN), a non-profit organization that operates a statewide fiber optic network in cooperation with the Illinois Century Network (ICN). The CIRBN connects more than 20 communities in Central Illinois with high-speed connectivity.

The Mahomet-Seymour school district initiated the first phase of the new network in 2013 when they connected area schools to the nearby CIRBN. In the next phase of the project, the Village extended the fiber network to reach other areas of the Village and provide gigabit service to businesses and other Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs). By the end of 2014, local hospitals, museums, and city government facilities also had gigabit connectivity. Village officials hope the network can eventually provide service to residents as well.

City leaders consider the project important to the community’s economic future:

“A reliable and affordable fiber-optic broadband network is important and fundamental for Mahomet to be competitive in our efforts to help drive economic development growth from new business attraction and to retain current businesses," Village of Mahomet Administrator Patrick Brown said. 

Saving

Connecting to CIRBN’s existing network allowed the Village of Mahomet and its schools to switch from an expensive private provider service contract. Mahomet-Seymour school district is getting ten times the bandwitdth while also saving $35,000 annually under the new agreement.

According to terms of the four year contract, the CIRBN will manage and maintain the network at a charge of just $1 per year. The school district and Village will retain ownership of the network. All told, the Village has spent about $300,000 on the project. 

Under the contract the CIRBN retains the right to choose either to provide Internet services over the network or to lease the lines to private entities. The CIRBN can also charge commercial customers a one-time infrastructure access fee. Proceeds from these fees will then be used for the purposes of expanding the infrastructure. 

Learning

Mahomet-Seymour school district Superintendent Rick Johnston also notes that the new community network’s core educational mission coincides with one of the CIRBN’s central objectives:

“The grant funding that started CIRBN targeted K-12 schools, so a child at school in Mahomet would have the same educational opportunities as children in large major metropolitan areas. Between our investment in the infrastructure and CIRBN’s gigabit Internet access, we have the foundation and are moving towards a 1:1 program where every student in grades 3 through 12 will have access to their own computer with internet access while at school.”

Going Faster, Farther, Safer

Prior to the installation and connection of the new network to the CIRBN, Mahomet already owned and used a limited amount of fiber optic infrastructure. The latest installation of this new fiber loop gives the Village redundancy over a larger geographic area and can carry the bandwith needed for faster speeds. The average speed for public facilities used to be about 20 Megabits per second (Mbps) but now is 250 Mbps. 

Mahomet Public Library Director Lynn Schmidt is trumpeting the impact of these upgrades for the quality of services she can deliver to the community:

“Since joining the Village of Mahomet and the Mahomet-Seymour School District in receiving internet services over fiber through CIRBN, Mahomet Public Library increased our internet speed fivefold, cut our monthly bill in half, and decreased downtime significantly. This allows us to better serve our community with fast, reliable internet access.”

Overall, the new network is fast, reliable, and affordable. The school district reduces connectivity costs while improving their curriculum, security procedures, and standardized testing. The Village is saving public dollars and increasing efficiencies.

“We’re going to be on a level playing field” with larger communities, [Acting Village President Sean] Widener said at the event.

Bradley County Urges Tennessee Lawmakers: High-Speed Internet Now!

Just this past week, we reported on the plight of Bradley County in Tennessee. Cut off from connectivity, families and businesses are considering leaving to nearby Hamilton County which has Chattanooga’s high-speed fiber network.

By a 12-1 vote, the Bradley County Commission urged the Tennessee legislature to pass a bill (Tennessee HB 1303/SB 1134) enabling public utilities to bring high-speed Internet to Bradley County residents. Current state law - right now embroiled in legal disputes - prohibits public utilities from expanding high-speed Internet access. 

Near-Unanimous Vote (12-1)

As reported in the Chattanoogan, the only naysayer to the resolution was the vice-chairman. He agreed that Charter and AT&T had failed to provide adequate Internet access to the county, but he expressed opposition to municipal networks. Although disagreeing with the resolution, he underscored how local control had disappeared with the current state law:

He said local governments at one time had leverage over providers when they had to come to them periodically for charters, but he said that control went away with the passage of the current law that he said was heavily lobbied.

The commissioners, however, felt that this vote was the only way forward. Some described how dependent their homes and businesses have become on Internet access, and others reiterated that the community suffered die to the lack of competition.

An Engaged Public Speaks Out

According to the Cleveland Daily Banner, the meeting attracted enough residents to pack the room. The people of Bradley County see the importance of better access in their future. Blake Kitterman, president of the Bradley County Young Democrats, told the Commission:

“When Bradley County citizens succeed, we all succeed, and EPB broadband expansion means an interconnected community…It means opportunities for businesses to affordably advertise their products, and students to be able to take part in higher forms of learning.”

According to the Banner, the crowd applauded every point supporting the resolution. The loudest and longest ovation was in response to Commissioner Mike Hughes when he summarized sentiment about incumbent providers Charter and AT&T:

““They had their opportunity, and they failed,” Hughes said. “It’s time to open it up.”

Community Broadband Media Roundup - January 8

Minnesota

Building a 21st century broadband infrastructure by Senator Amy Klobuchar, Walker Minnesota Pilot

Minnesota Governor recommends $100 million rural broadband funding by Colin Wood, GovTech

 

Oregon

Survey to gauge public's interest in a city-owned fiber network by Phil Favorite, Lake Oswego Review

By operating its own fiber broadband network as a utility, the city would be able to set and control consumer costs and services while giving citizens a voice in pricing and content. That wouldn’t be the case if the city offered no alternative to for-profit companies such as CenturyLink, Comcast or Frontier, which currently operate broadband networks in the area, or Google Fiber, which is considering moving into the market.

Although Lake Oswego was identified in 2014 as a potential “fiberhood” — an area that could receive Google Fiber’s high-speed Internet service — the timeline has been vague. In March, Lazenby suggested to the council that the city didn’t have to wait for Google to make up its mind; instead, the city could build out a fiber-optic infrastructure through a public-private partnership, ultimately creating a city-owned utility.

 

Tennessee

Libraries lend mobile Wi-Fi hot spots to those who need Internet service by Tony Gonzalez, National Public Radio

Tennessee to evaluate broadband access by Jamie McGee, The Tennessean

 

Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin eyes muni-broadband network by Bailey McCann, CivSource

Explaining the city of Madison's broadband initiatives by Kristian Knutson, WORT-FM

 

General

FCC narrowly misses its Gigabit deployment goal by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

Home broadband use falls as consumers go mobile by David Jones, Tech News World

FCC gets more Comcast complains than AT&T, Verizon combined by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

FCC: broadband is not being deployed quickly enough by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

Next Century Cities Covers One-Touch Make-Ready

An increasing number of communities appreciate the significance of dig-once policies. Municipal, state, and federal leaders are taking the advice of groups like Next Century Cities and implementing some form of the dig once approach to speed up deployment of telecommunications infrastructure. The next "no-brainer" policy is the one-touch make-ready or OTMR for pole attachments.

Make-ready work on utility poles is typically time consuming because it often requires multiple crews from different entities to move existing lines placed on the pole for different services. Before the new fiber line can be attached, those lines need to be rearranged to make room. When a community adheres to an OTMR policy, companies that own the poles agree to conditions that streamline the process.

Next Century Cities recently covered the policy on their blog where you can learn more about the details of this new approach, described it as the next "common sense" solution:

Perhaps most importantly: providers are likely to look more favorably on OTMR communities as they plan their investments, benefiting both companies and consumers. Across the country there have been complaints about lengthy processes to acquire access to poles and complex make-ready processes that require coordination among multiple providers to make changes… By implementing one touch make-ready policies, companies will benefit from less red tape, communities will benefit from less disruption, and everyone will benefit from faster deployment and increased connectivity.

Be sure to check out the FTTH Council's November 2015 white paper on OTMR, Role of State and Local Governments in Simplifying the Make-Ready Process for Pole Attachments, accessible from the Next Century Cities blog.

No Longer Just a Luxury: Tennessee Communities Need Broadband Access Now

Sandi Wallis, a resident of northern Bradley County in Tennessee, doesn’t simply want to have ultra-fast, reliable broadband access for the fun of it. She needs it to run her home business. Her school-age children need it too:

“I've had to send my kids into town to do their homework. We’ve had to go into town with our business laptops to download updates to our programs for our accounting business because we can’t do it at home. We need service — not just reliable service and not just for entertainment.”

Wallis made the comments at a recent meeting hosted by the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee. The meeting focused on a persistent problem in many parts of Bradley County - residents and businesses lack the fast, affordable, reliable, broadband access that is available via Chattanooga’s EPB fiber network in neighboring Hamilton County. The deficiency is taking its toll.

Cleveland, a city of about 43,000 in Bradley County, has explored the idea of building their own community broadband network. But business leaders, government officials, and residents across Bradley County and the State of Tennessee are all anxiously awaiting the results of the ongoing legal struggle over the state’s anti-muni law. In addition, a bill set for consideration at the next state legislative session would, if passed, allow municipalities like Chattanooga to expand their existing fiber broadband services to adjacent communities in Bradley County. 

Don’t Mind the Gaps

Alan Hill, a representative from AT&T, suggested that rather than focusing on the broadband service gaps in the state, Bradley County should acknowledge AT&T’s positive contributions in the area:

“Instead of talking about the gaps, we need to celebrate what all has happened here because there is a lot of opportunities here for businesses that have services both wired and wireless.” Hill said.

Much like hiding a dirty family secret, large corporate providers believe that by ignoring a problem, it doesn't exist. Tell that to the thousands of residents and businesses that slug along on inadequate connections while gazing longingly toward Chattanooga. For community members like Dr. Terry Forshee, president of the local Cherokee Pharmacy, all that matters is that private competition is not getting the job done:

“The problem is I am one of the gaps,” Forshee said. “In my opinion, you had 27 years to bring cable down to me. I’m three miles away to the closest that you come. I’m waiting. I call every month.”

The Marvel of the Free Market?

The problem is not just about expanding broadband service to the rural, unserved parts of Bradley County. The broadband service in downtown Cleveland, Tennessee, is so poor, in fact, that business owners like Clark Campbell say they’ll soon have to leave town if something doesn’t change:

"We have multiple businesses in downtown Cleveland that compete with Chattanooga, but I had to move my family to Ooltewah this year in order to have adequate Internet service. We will consider moving our business to Hamilton County if the high-speed Internet problem is not solved in the next 12 months because we just can't compete with the speed, reliability and customer service of EPB in Chattanooga."

Send in the Munis

For the time being, the people of Cleveland and other communities throughout Bradley County and the rest of the state can only wait and wonder what it would be like to get the kind of broadband access that the residents of neighboring Chattanooga now enjoy. Meanwhile, Ken Webb, CEO of Cleveland Utilities (CU), is looking ahead at solving a problem where private enterprise has failed:

“‘I do not come in an adversarial role toward anyone or any other interest in this room,’ Webb said. ‘I do, in addition to representing Cleveland Utilities, come representing a significant number of citizens who realize and understand access to reliable and reasonably priced high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. Broadband availability has become such a necessity we can no longer wait for the service issues to be addressed.’”

New Vermont Law Bolsters Prospects for Investing in Community Broadband Networks

A new state law is on the books in Vermont that supporters expect will encourage more investor activity supporting community broadband networks. 

The new law, which took effect this past June, allows for the creation of “communications union districts,” enabling towns and cities to band together to form geographic entities dedicated to establishing fiber-optic broadband networks for their area’s residents and businesses. 

A New Nomenclature

While Vermont towns have been able to work cooperatively via inter-local contracts, the new law is less cumbersome and uses a governmental nomenclature more familiar to most people—the union district. The union district governance model has been used for many years throughout Vermont, including by various utilities that have multi-town operations to handle, for example, sewer and water service.  

Carole Monroe; general manager of the East Central Vermont Community Fiber-Optic Network (ECFiber), a consortium of 24 Vermont communities that have banded together to provide broadband service; told our Christopher Mitchell there isn’t much practical difference for her group operating now as the East Central Vermont Telecommunications District instead of by an inter-local contract.  

“But I can say that in the municipal investment markets, they’re much more familiar with the municipal utility district, whether it’s a water district or sewer district or something along those lines,” Monroe told Chris in a recent edition of Community Broadband Bits podcast. “A municipal utility district is a common language for them. Inter-local contracts, not so much.” 

ECFiber Grew From Inter-Local Contract 

Irvin Thomae, chairman of the EC Vermont Telecommunications District board, agreed. He noted that seven years ago the east central Vermont communities created ECFiber through an inter-local contract. “But this (the inter-local contract) was unfamiliar to investors beyond our state borders,” Thomae told us.

“We needed a structure more capable of being recognized by large institutional investors. It (the communications union district) makes it easier for community broadband networks to appeal more for large investors.”

Jerry Ward, an ECFiber delegate from Randolph Center, earlier in 2015 urged residents of his community to vote to approve the governance change to a telecommunications utility district. He predicted in an opinion article in The Herald of Randolph, the union district model will be a boon for ECFiber: 

“Most of the money we’ve raised until now has come in small multiples of $2,500. The governance structure allowed by a Telecommunications Municipal Utility District should help ECFiber attract larger investors at more favorable interest rates. We expect that reorganizing along the lines of a municipal utility district will make it significantly easier to borrow enough money to build out our network much more rapidly than the 50 miles/year we’ve averaged so far.”

During the past four years, ECFiber, under its inter-local contract, has borrowed more than $7 million from predominantly about 450 local investors, connecting nearly 1,200 customers in parts of about a dozen towns, along 200 road miles of fiber-optic cable. Its customers include residents, businesses and institutions. The vast majority of the 24 towns in the ECFiber district are communities of less than 2,000 residents with a handful boasting between 4,800 to 10,000 people. 

Ward noted thousands of other residents still don’t have access to high-speed Internet.  “The rate at which we (ECFiber) can grow depends almost entirely on capital,” he said.  EC Fiber became a communications union district shortly after Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the new law on June 1, 2015.

ECFiber offers latest Internet speeds

Currently, ECFiber offers the latest generation symmetrical Internet access and a choice of five speeds (from 7 Mbps to 400 Mbps) that do not vary by time of day or according to the weather - as well as phone service with unlimited long-distance calling in the U.S. and Canada, according to its website.

Under Vermont’s communications union districts, the member towns can help facilitate the broadband networks with obtaining easements from property owners along the fiber-optic cable routes, including putting up poles and laying conduit. ECFiber’s union district board is comprised of one delegate per town with each community also able to send one or two alternate delegates to the board’s monthly meeting. 

Under the new Vermont law, a communications union district, such as EC Vermont Telecommunications, isn’t allowed to assess taxes for the initiative. (Note: This was also true for ECFiber when it carried out its operations under its inter-local contract.) A communications union district’s revenue come from subscriber fees. Currently, the ECFiber district is generating about $125,000 a month in subscriber fees, Thomae told us. 

Currently, while ECFiber is the only communications union district in Vermont, Thomae said he has had a few inquiries from other people in the state asking about the new governance structure. 

Monroe said the creation of the ECFiber network has given people in Vermont’s rural east central region an alternative to DSL service, which usually is poor at best. For people not connected to a high quality network, fast and reliable Internet service also can be a problem because the East Central region’s mountainous terrain inhibits satellite service and reception from cell towers, she told us.   

Thoughts on 2015, Predictions for 2016 - Community Broadband Bits Episode 183

Given all the exciting events of 2015 and our hopes for 2016, we decided to do another year end / year beginning show that looks both backward and forward. Unfortunately, our timing did not allow for Lisa to join us in the recording, but Christopher Mitchell is joined by communications staff at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance -- Rebecca Toews and Nick Stumo-Langer.

We talk about what strikes us about the past year and what we expect to be happening in the near future. When I write "we" I mean that Christopher dominates the discussion.

We will be back with our usual interviews starting next week.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Community Broadband Media Roundup - January 4

Delaware

Council narrowly agrees to municipal broadband study by Karie Simmons, Newark Post Online

Newark to study municipal broadband by Xerxes Wilson, Delaware Online

 

Iowa

 Dubuque enhances broadband access by The Telegraph Herald

 

Massachusetts

Gigabites: Massachusetts Town Proves Gigabit Demand by Mari Silbey, Light Reading

Holyoke Fiber Optic Group hoping for discussion with municipal utility by Mike Plaisance, MassLive

 

Minnesota

Firms are interested in running Monticello’s city-owned broadband network by Tim Hennigar, Monticello Times

 

New Hampshire

Activism needed for local broadband by James A. Rousmaniere Jr., The Keene Sentinel

 

West Virginia

Broadband service remains urgent need in W.Va. by Toril Lavender, Herald Dispatch

 

Wisconsin

Madison eyes public broadband system to compete with private sector by Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

 

General

Comcast customer discovers huge mistake in company’s data cap meter by Jon Brodkin, ArsTechnica

Towns Start to Realize AT&T's Gigabit Fiber Promises Are Hollow by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

How the FCC Got Its Groove Back in 2015 by Joshua Stager, Slate